This 17th-century hornbook has first the cross, then the alphabet in small letters, the vowels, and then the capitals. Below these are combinations of the consonants and vowels, then the ‘Exorcism’ (used with the idea that the average boy was so full of the devil that he needed the proper formula constantly at hand in order to free him from Satan’s wiles) and the Lord’s Prayer.
from The Hornbook and its use in America, by George A. Plimpton
American Antiquarian Society – October 1916
The noun criss-cross denotes a pattern made of crossing lines.
It is a phonetic reduction of Christ-cross, literally Christ’s cross: the element Christ’s being phonetically reduced as in Christmas, and the composition thus obscured, the compound was eventually treated as a mere reduplication with vowel variation of cross, similar for example to the noun tittle-tattle, a reduplication of the noun tattle.
The word Christ-cross denoted the figure of a cross, ✠, which was formerly placed in front of the alphabet in horn-books and was an instruction to the children to cross themselves before they began their lesson.
The alphabet itself was called Christ-cross, as well as Christ-cross-row and cross-row.
The hornbook was one of the earliest teaching aids for children. It was so called because it consisted of a leaf of paper mounted on a wooden tablet and protected with a sheet of translucent horn; the paper contained the alphabet, often with the Roman numerals and the Lord’s Prayer.
The English composer Thomas Morley (1557/58-1602) mentioned the learning process in A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke (London, 1597):
Christes crosse be my speede¹, in all vertue to proceede, A. b. c. d. e. f. g. h. i². k. l. m. n. o. p. q. r. s & t. double w. v². x. with y. ezod. & per se³. con per se. title title⁴. est Amen⁵, When you haue done begin againe begin againe. Christes crosse be my speede, in all vertue to proceede, A. b. c. d. e. f. g. h.
¹ Christ-cross be my speed, or Christ-cross me speed, was a formula said before repeating the alphabet—speed having the original sense of good fortune, as in the archaic exclamation Godspeed, from God speed you, meaning may God help you prosper.
² The alphabet did not include j and u, which were served by i and v.
³ & per se is for & per se and, meaning & by itself is and (Latin per se means by itself); this was the old way of spelling and naming the character &; the word ampersand, denoting the sign & standing for and, is an alteration of & per se and.
⁴ The word tittle, usually said three times, denoted the three dots following the letters and contractions in the alphabet on horn-books. This attracted a Christian metaphor, according to Thomas Johnson (died 1644), English apothecary and soldier, in A new booke of new conceits with a number of nouelties annexed threreunto. Whereof some be profitable, some necessary, some strange, none hurtful, and all delectable (London, 1630):
Why A. and E. be the formost vowels rather then the rest.
A Is set formost, because euery man-child when he commeth into this world, cryeth A, A, A, as who would say Adam, Adam.
E Likewise, next vowell to it, for that euery female child first cryeth E, E, as who would say, Eue, Eue.
A Is thought to bee the first letter of the row, because by it we may vnderstand Trinity, and Unity: the Trinity in that there bee thrée lines, and the Unity, in that it is but one letter.
And for that cause, in old time they vsed thrée prickes at the latter end of the Crosse row, and at the end of their bookes which they caused children to call tittle, tittle, tittle: signifying, that as there were thrée pricks, and those thrée made but one stop, euen so there were thrée Persons, and yet but one God.
⁵ Because the Christ-cross-row, just after the tittles, was usually followed by Est Amen, tittle est Amen came to be used for the end or the conclusion; the following is from The terrors of the night or, A discourse of apparitions (London, 1594), by the English playwright, poet and pamphleteer Thomas Nashe (1567-1601?):
This is the Tittle est amen of it: that when he wexeth [= waxes, becomes] stale, and all his pispots [= piss-pots] are crackt and wil no longer hold water, he sets vp a coniuring schoole, and vndertakes to play the baud [= the bawd, the pander] to Ladie Fortune.
The learning process is also, and humorously, evoked by Pipkin, a character in A pleasant conceited comedie, wherein is shewed, how a man may chuse a good wife from a bad (London, 1602), by the English playwright and poet Thomas Heywood (circa 1573-1641):
Let me see what age am I, some foure & twentie, and how haue I profited, I was fiue yeare learning to crish Crosse from great A. and fiue yeare longer comming to F. I there I stucke some three yeare before I could come to q. and so in processe of time I came to e perce e, and comperce, and tittle, then I got to a. e. i. o. u. after to our Father.
The words Christ-cross and criss-cross also designated the figure or mark of a cross in general, especially that made in ‘signing’ their name by a person who could not write; for example, the following is from A Glossary of North Country Words (3rd edition – Newcastle upon Tyne, 1846), by John Trotter Brockett and William Edward Brockett:
Cris-cross [sic], the mark of a cross; a convenient substitute for the signature of those who cannot write.
The French equivalent of Christ-cross(-row) was croix de par Dieu, literally cross of by God. In A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave recorded the following:
La croix de par Dieu. The Christs-crosse-row; or, the hornebooke wherein a child learnes it.
The first edition (1694) of the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française defined croix de par Dieu as meaning “l’abc, ou Alphabet, pour apprendre à lire”, “the ABC, or alphabet, for learning to read”, and indicated that this term was also used figuratively to mean “le commencement de quelque chose”, “the beginning of something”.